There’s a reason partygate was the one scandal Boris Johnson was never quite able to shake off. Nothing ever seemed to touch him: revelations that would bring down any other politician – of affairs, dodgy loans, wallpaper, holidays, lies printed on Brexit buses – just didn’t stick, brushed off with a sheepish ruffle of the hair and throwaway line about Cicero. Until this one did. While technically the trigger for Johnson’s departure from No 10 may have been a row over the well-known sleaziness of one of his whips, it was the months of headlines about Abba parties, karaoke machines, broken swings, wine fridges, Secret Santas and birthday cake that drove Conservative MPs to breaking point. Enough was enough. The public had lost faith in the prime minister, and so had his party.
It wasn’t the severity of the charges against Johnson that made partygate different. Compared with so much of what he’s been accused of over the course of his career (I could list some examples, but who has the time – just pick your favourite), being present at what look like some of the saddest parties in history really isn’t that bad. If Johnson were to be brought down by a photo of a party, you would have assumed it’d be the cocaine and hookers type, not one of him standing awkwardly by a table covered in cheap wine and biscuits.
Johnson himself seems to agree. The 52-page “defence dossier” his legal team submitted to the MPs on the Privileges Committee, who are investigating whether he misled parliament, before they question him today reveals his evident bafflement that this – this – is the scandal over which he is fighting for his political life. Of one of the events under investigation (on 13 November 2020, known as the “Abba party” because of the music reportedly being played at high volume), he says: “When I looked around the room, I did not think anyone was breaking any Rules or Guidance: on the contrary, I thought that we were all doing our job.” The dossier is full of such minimisations – food and drink were being served, yes, but the topic of conversation was always Covid-19. No one was having fun. No one was partying. How could anyone have known this was against the rules?
Expect this line of defence to take centre stage at the hearing today. We will hear much about how trivial the gatherings really were, how ridiculous our overreaction to them. Surely, the former prime minister will argue, everyone can see how silly it is to get upset about all of this. If he misled the House of Commons in saying no rules were broken when both the Metropolitan Police and the report he himself commissioned by the civil servant Sue Gray found otherwise, that’s just a technicality. No normal person would consider such behaviour against the rules. Isn’t it ridiculous to imagine a government banning something so banal as having some wine with colleagues or sitting in a garden together?
The problem for Johnson – and the reason why, despite his continued incomprehension, this scandal continues to dog him – is that this is precisely what his government did. He really did change the fundamentals of the British legal system overnight so that basic civil liberties were suddenly removed, with the assumption that behaviour was illegal unless specifically sanctioned. He really did send the police out to enforce these rules, however misguided and cruel some of them were.
And while Johnson and those working in Downing Street during lockdown may have treated them as “guidance”, to be complied with or ignored at will, the British people for the most part took them seriously. So did the police, who handed out fines, harassed hikers and warned people against waving to their loved ones through the windows of care homes. So did the officials who wrote policies forcing women to give birth or miscarry alone, who banned funerals and who cancelled support services for disabled children.
They were told – we were all told – that such drastic action, such cruelty, was necessary to stop the spread of a deadly disease and prevent the health service being overwhelmed. The policy was unprecedented, but so was the threat. We had to take this seriously, even if it meant causing more damage than we could at the time understand. We had no other choice. The government told us so.
Tomorrow (23 March) marks three years since the start of the first lockdown, three years since Boris Johnson appeared on the nation’s TV screens to “give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home”. In some ways, we are only just beginning to grasp the full cost of that instruction – in terms of our mental health, of children’s education, of the economy, of missed opportunities, of loneliness and heartbreak. The consequences of the pandemic, and of the lockdowns imposed to combat it, are everywhere: from the “ghost children” who disappeared from schools to the burn-out among those who work in our public services to the fracturing of relationships and grief for everyone we lost without being able to say goodbye. It’s impossible to measure the sacrifices people made, or the impact those sacrifices are still having today.
The partygate revelations made a mockery of those sacrifices. While people outside Downing Street were being cautioned for sitting on park benches or fined for visiting loved ones, those within who were making those rules were shown to have considered them fudgeable, up for debate, flexible enough to allow for a cheese and wine party or two.
That’s why Johnson wasn’t able to dodge the public anger that annihilated his popularity and led to MPs forcing him out. That’s why his defence today, even if it wins over the Privileges Committee, won’t give him back his political career. Yes, the Downing Street parties were trivial. Yes, it seems ridiculous a plate of cheese and biscuits could be a police matter. But it was. However much we’ve tried to forget, it really was. Boris Johnson made sure of that.